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Best of rivals

Spencer Kimball
May 14, 2014

US-Russian relations have reached one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War. The question is, as Moscow and Washington face off over Ukraine, can they continue to cooperate on Syria and Iran?

Obama and Putin at G8 in Northern Ireland, 2013
Image: Reuters

Barack Obama was going to be the president who salvaged Washington's deteriorating relationship with Russia. Ties between the two countries had frayed during the Bush administration over Moscow's intervention in Georgia and US plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

In 2009, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red "reset" button. The gesture symbolized the Obama White House's desire to clear the slate and build a more cooperative relationship with the Kremlin.

Fast forward five years and Washington is now threatening Moscow with economic sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine. It's the most serious confrontation between the two powers in the past two decades, according to Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russian foreign policy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

"There's not going to be a walking back from the confrontation that's been unleashed by this crisis, at least as long as Russia is what it is, which is to say an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist power," Mankoff told DW.

But from the Syrian civil war to Iran's nuclear program, the US needs Russian cooperation to resolve a host of international problems. In Washington, the Republican opposition believes that President Obama's unwillingness to adopt a more aggressive posture has only emboldened Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.

US 2009 gift to Russia: Reset button. Russian mistranslated as "overcharge"
The now infamous "reset" button - Unfortunately, the Russian was mistranslated as "overcharge"Image: Getty Images/Afp/Fabrice Coffrini

"We are almost rudderless as far as our foreign policy is concerned," Senator John McCain told DW at the Munich Security Conference in February.

US role limited

But according to Joshua Landis, it's not really the Obama administration that is weak. The United States as a power is confronting a more challenging international political environment these days. Both China and Russia have emerged from a period of political and economic weakness during the early 1990s. Now they are better able to resist American pressure.

"Under George H.W. Bush, we could get a unanimous UN decision to take down Iraq in the Gulf War in 1990 and it only cost us a few billion dollars," Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, told DW.

"We could get the whole world to vote yes for a very forward military policy in the Middle East, which they would never vote yes for today under any circumstances," he said.

Proxy war in Syria

In the case of Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of helping President Bashar al-Assad stay in power by supplying his regime with an armory of weapons. Since the start of the civil war, Moscow and Beijing have vetoed three UN resolutions that variously condemned Damascus, threatened targeted sanctions, and called for Assad to resign.

According to the Daily Beast, Secretary Kerry recently told Syrian opposition leaders that the international community had #link:http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/12/exclusive-kerry-told-syrian-rebels-we-wasted-a-year-in-fight-against-assad.html:wasted a year# by not coordinating their efforts to oust the regime. As a consequence, Damascus has gained ground, recently reclaiming the city of Homs from rebel groups.

In a recent report by The Guardian, several Iranian strategists claimed that #link:http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/11/syria-crisis-iran-assad-won-war-tehran:Tehran has won the war in Syria#. Next to Russia, Iran has been a key supporter of the Assad regime. Western intelligence agencies claim that the Islamic Republic has supplied both weapons and boots on the ground to fight the Syrian rebels.

"Without Iranian and Russian support, Assad probably would have gone down and external support for the rebels would have gone way up because people, once they would have smelled the wind, would have redoubled their donations from the Gulf [states]," Landis said.

UN Syria Envory Lakhdar Brahimi, Secretary of State Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Paris
Russia and the US have agreed to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, but have little common ground otherwiseImage: Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

With the regime gaining ground, the Syrian opposition is in Washington this week to ask the Obama administration to equip them with anti-aircraft weapons. The White House has sent small arms and a limited number of TOW anti-tank missiles. But the president has been reluctant to send large quantities of heavy weaponry out of concern that they could fall into the hands of Islamist militants.

"If President Bush was in there, and we threw everything we have at them, we could defeat them in two weeks," Landis said. "The trouble is what do you get when you defeat them? That's what Obama has shrunk from. He doesn't want to own it. He would rather have the Russians own it."

Shaky cooperation on chemical weapons

Although the US has been at loggerheads with Iran and Russia over the future of the Assad regime, areas of cooperation have - for the time being - opened up on the issue of weapons proliferation. The Kremlin headed off an American military intervention in Syria last fall by pressuring Damascus to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

Backed by Russia and the US, international inspectors have removed #link:http://opcw.unmissions.org/AboutOPCWUNJointMission/tabid/54/ctl/Details/mid/651/ItemID/313/Default.aspx:about 92 percent of Assad's declared chemical weapons# from Syria. Yet differences remain about the transparency and effectiveness of the disposal process. Damascus has lagged behind schedule, claiming that the remaining eight percent of its stockpile is inaccessible due to fighting with rebel groups.

Russia, for its part, has praised the Assad regime's cooperation with the international community. But France, Britain, Israel and the US are concerned that Damascus is retaining a small, undeclared chemical weapons stockpile hidden from the inspectors.

Final push for Iran nuclear deal

Moscow's support has also been crucial for the negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program. Last November, world powers and Iran struck an interim deal, in which the Islamic Republic agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. A new round of nuclear negotiations is underway this weak, with a July 20th deadline for a final accord.

But as the West ratchets up sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, there's concern among some analysts that Moscow could deepen its ties with Iran. The Kremlin has been #link:http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/10/us-usa-russia-iran-idUSBREA391Y920140410:negotiating an oil deal# with the Islamic Republic, which Washington claims violates the terms of the interim deal. Meanwhile, Iran's Fars news agency says that Russian officials have approached Tehran about #link:http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13930218000499:ways to circumvent Western sanctions# over the Ukraine crisis.

Russian FM Lavrov and Iranian FM Zarif at a press conference in Tehran.
Russia will be key to securing a final nuclear agreement between the world powers and IranImage: Mehr

"There is some concern about Russia trying to play a spoiler role with Iran as a consequence of this crisis," Mankoff said. "But, at the same time, if the US is smart, it can still put itself in a position where the Iranians feel they have more to gain from working on the US track than from letting Russia play the spoiler role."

Moscow, however, has been deeply invested in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to Suzanne Maloney with the Brookings Foundation in Washington D.C. And the Kremlin has little reason to support an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, which could precipitate another US military strike in the Middle East.

"So far, what we've seen is that all parties have been able to insulate the process of negotiation on a comprehensive [Iranian] nuclear deal from the deterioration in bilateral US-Russian relations," Maloney told DW.

"[During] the last round of negotiations, which took place about a month ago, all sides emerged saying that things were very much on track and that the cooperation and atmosphere were very good."